The Academy has a problem with diversity. Even when they are addressing diversity they fail to include everyone. I have been fighting for inclusion for the disability community in Hollywood for many years. I was an idealistic child actor and performer who believed I’d one day grow up to make movies in Hollywood. Today, with a film degree under my belt, and as a struggling film director, I realize the reality that Hollywood is not open to people like me… those of us with disabilities.
In college, studying disability in film and television was a tenant of my education. I have spent the last several years learning about the lack of inclusion associated with disability, and advocacy efforts have been a major part of my career. We face a lack of overall inclusion. We face a lack of representation. When we are represented, the lack of authentic and/or positive representation is overwhelming. The truth is, failing to include disabled people in all aspects of filmmaking, along with Hollywood’s support of troubling, problematic, and inauthentic representation of the disability community, has long-standing and harmful effects on said community. We must do better. Hollywood MUST do better.
The facts are abysmal.
There were over 1400 actors in SAG who self-identified as having a disability (this includes deaf and Hoh (hard of hearing) actors) as of 2005. We know for a fact that number has grown.
That study in 2005 concluded that actors with disabilities worked, on average, five days a year. A lot of this was due to widespread prejudice and lack of inclusion, especially during the casting process. Little has changed over a decade later.
In 2015, less than 1% of characters on television had disabilities. This is less than 2014, which was less than 2%.
There are over 58 million disabled Americans and over 1 billion disabled people worldwide. You cannot tell me that there are not people in the disability community with at least a modicum of talent. So, where are they?
Note: Most research claims 2010 statistics, where 56.7 million disabled individuals were counted.
We are the world’s largest minority. We are the least included minority. We are the only minority anyone can join at any time, so when we talk about disability rights, we are talking about the rights of the vast majority of humans. Most people will develop a disability at some point in their life, but, by then, fighting for inclusion happens too late. Often, disabled voices are silenced, so action to ensure inclusion is paramount now.
Keeping the above statistics in mind, it should be easy to understand why the disabled community is so pissed off about the most recent statement by Academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Her statement was made in response to the outcry against the lack of diversity, particularly the lack of black and brown actors from the most recent list of Oscar nominees. Those of us fighting for inclusion in the disability community are fighting for inclusion for everyone. We support the outcry and #OscarsSoWhite response. What we do not support is the continued exclusion of the disability community when discussing inclusion for all in response to the outcry.
It needs to be noted that disabled people exist in black and brown communities, and disabled actors in these communities face even more exclusion from the industry than their white counterparts. This is because the majority of characters that have been allowed to be disabled are almost exclusively white. The intersection of race and disability in Hollywood is seldom considered (and let’s not even get into how black/brown disabled characters are portrayed in the few examples that exist – i.e. Radio).
In her statement, Boone Isaacs stated that inclusion in the Academy needed to include every facet, and she mentioned every marginalized community that needed to be included, with one notable exception.
Her statement said:
“I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful work of this year’s nominees. While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.
As many of you know, we have implemented changes to diversify our membership in the last four years. But the change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly.
This isn’t unprecedented for the Academy. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was about recruiting younger members to stay vital and relevant. In 2016, the mandate is inclusion in all of its facets: gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. We recognize the very real concerns of our community, and I so appreciate all of you who have reached out to me in our effort to move forward together.”
This statement excludes the inclusion of disability from the facets she listed and ignores disabled and deaf actors such as Peter Dinklage who is a LP, Keira Knightly who is dyslexic, Dan Ackroyd who has Aspergers, Daryl Hannah who is autistic, or most significant is the fact that even Academy award winning actress, Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, exists as a member of the Academy, and that was discounted. They and other deaf and disabled actors have had to work hard, often on their own to overcome the overwhelming bias, just to be included in this discriminatory industry.
My dear friend, actress Eileen Grubba has been in the industry for over 25 years. She has been fighting for inclusion, and has many horror stories about how she’s been treated in the industry. (BTW, she will be on the upcoming NBC television series, Game of Silence). Upon receiving a copy of the above statement, Eileen was very disappointed. She immediately took action, sending the following letter to the Academy, which I am sharing with her permission.
“PLEASE correct the recent statement from your President Cheryl Boone Issacs regarding greater DIVERSITY to include PWDs. People With Disabilities are THE LARGEST MINORITY including at least 52 million [sic: an old statistic] Americans, and the MOST EXCLUDED from the Entertainment Industry. They are almost never included in awards, roles or even allowed into auditions to be considered for casting in our Industry. We must begin to include them along with all other minorities who are excluded just based on discrimination against a visible physical difference.
I am a 25 year veteran of the film and TV industry, a member of The Actors Studio, and am on the SAG PWD committee, and we are fighting so hard to wake up our industry to allow this minority to finally be included in the game. Please begin to include them in your wording, and in your conversations and considerations for TRUE diversity. What good is diversity if it is not ALL INCLUSIVE and indicative of the reality of the entire human race? An organization of this caliber would help this effort enormously by beginning to include PWDs in the conversation.
Eileen, myself, and many others have been fighting for inclusion in the industry for a long time, and now we need your help. Join us in telling the Academy it is not okay to exclude actors with disabilities from their diversity initiatives. Discuss the issue with us on social media using the hashtag #OscarsDISs. Now is the time to stand up for what is right in Hollywood. I have been discussing all of these issues in my weekly #FilmDis chats, and now is the time for action.
The disability community is one of the last to have our revolution. Many of us fight every day to have our voices heard and be counted. We cannot do it without your help. Greater treatment for those of us with disabilities starts with greater representation and better portrayals of disability in all aspects of media, especially film and television. Until we are included in all aspects of the industry, those of us with disabilities will continue to be treated like second-class citizens. Help us change that, because eventually disability impacts everyone….
There are many talented people with disabilities working in the film industry. Just give us the chance to prove it.
UPDATE: Everyone has been asking what they can do to help. Here is a simple list:
Email or call The Academy:
To Call: Telephone: (310) 247-3000
Facsimile: (310) 859-9619
To Email: http://www.oscars.org/form/send-message
Share your thoughts on their social media pages (FB and Twitter):
Share my article on social media:
Use the hashtag: #OscarsDISs to air your concerns!